California dreamin’

Choose your own ‘native garden’ adventure

California native golden yarrow is a perennial subshrub that attracts native birds, bees and butterflies.

This morning I heard someone at my local coffee shop say that she has lived in San Jose for 10 years and has never seen the hillsides look so green. I’ve lived here just about as long and I’m seeing not only lush hills, but also my backyard fruit trees exploding in bloom, and previously dormant bulbs pushing strong, tall flowers toward the sky. It’s a reminder that water is life, and I’m starting this spring feeling very refreshed. Just last week I took my first bubble bath in nearly four years. Wait, I don’t mean it like that …

But even after all this rain, don’t think for a minute that I’m going to start taking a bath every day. Oh, I didn’t mean that either. What I do mean is that even after all this rain, the water that we, and our plants, drink, is still a scarce resource. And there are no better plants for sipping that precious water slowly than some of our own California native bulbs, bushes and trees. From formal gardens to cottage gardens, children’s gardens to edible gardens, you can—and should—choose your own (native garden) adventure this spring.

I planted my first California native garden in my front yard more than eight years ago, and recently I’ve been thinking that it’s about time for a makeover. And for this new adventure, I’ve decided on a pollinator garden to attract native birds, bees and butterflies. Want to give it a try, too? Here’s how to get started:

Choose a spot in full sun that is weed-free, with soil that is moderately well draining. No need to redo your entire yard at once. It’s OK to start with one small area.

Consider adding a natural arrangement of attractive boulders and rocks.

If you are handy enough to install one yourself, or able to pay a professional, include a basic drip irrigation system (before planting.) Otherwise, give your plants a deep soak when you plant them, with additional monthly deep soaks. Watch for heat waves in the forecast, giving them additional water a few days before any hot weather event.

Plant some of the following pollinator favorites, which will provide colorful blooms and foraging habitat throughout the year:

Wildflowers: Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), Globe gilia (gilia capitata), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Shrubs and subshrubs: Foothill penstemon (penstemon heterophyllus), Gumplant (grindelia spp.), California aster (symphyotrichum spp.), California lilac (ceanothus), Oregon grape (berberis aquifolium), Silver bush lupine (lupinus albifrons), California buckwheat (eriogonum fasciculatum), and yarrow (achillea millefolium)

Once your plants are in the ground, remember to keep the weeds to a minimum or they will compete for your California natives’ resources. Avoid using pesticides and choose hand weeding instead, which is a built-in opportunity to check soil moisture levels and identify pests and disease in their earliest stages. For more information about creating a pollinator garden, check out the Xerces Society’s “Bring Back the Pollinators” campaign:

Cayce Hill is a UCCE Master Gardener in Santa Clara County.